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Sommeliers: Love Them or Hate Them?
By Michael Apstein
Aug 25, 2015
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Somms--and oh, how I hate that word--are the newest darlings of the wine world.  Sommeliers have been anointed the opinion leaders, directing trends in wine consumption, replacing, in many instances, the voices of established wine critics such as Robert Parker, Jr. or The Wine Spectator.  Wine producers either love them (if their wines make it onto their lists) or hate them (when their wines are ignored).

Customers also tend to either love them or hate them--and you can put me in both categories.  To be fair, sommeliers are often faced with the difficult job of suggesting a wine to a customer who is incapable of articulating his or her preferences and often is too embarrassed to even suggest a price range.  Then again, there’s the deplorable situation in which a customer orders a wine from the list, only to be told it’s not available.  (I’ll never understand why, in this era of computer-generated wine lists, availability can’t be adjusted nightly, even with an indication, such as a dot, next to the wine.)  The sommelier then returns with a bottle that’s 50 or 100% more expensive but the customer only discovers the switch when the check is presented.  Again, in the interest of fairness, there have been occasions when the wine I’ve ordered has been unavailable, and a similar, but more expensive, bottle has appeared with the sommelier whispering that I can have it at the same price.

Large producers, knowing that sommeliers often believe that “smaller is better,” feel frustrated that many of them avoid their wines solely because they have such widespread retail availability.  Banfi, the Long Island-based family company that is a major importer of Italian wines in addition to owning Castello Banfi, a leading Brunello di Montalcino producer, counters this prejudice with education, sponsoring trips to Italy for sommeliers chosen by the Guild of Sommeliers.  Banfi, which historically has been an advocate of wine education and invested enormous resources in it, understands that education leads to greater sales.  On these excursions, sommeliers might even visit Bolla, for example, many of whose wines are found on supermarket shelves, not on upscale restaurants’ wine lists.  Unknown to most--and this is where education is critical--is that in addition to the million-plus case production of Bolla’s Soave, it also produces a distinctive--and unique--single vineyard wine, Tufaie, which would be more than just appropriate on a fine wine list. 

Regular customers, and even wine geeks, feel frustrated when faced with a wine list in which three-quarters of the wines are obscure or from unrecognizable grapes and/or locales.  Understandably, sommeliers like to offer unique wines or those with limited availability.  Wine producers know this, and will bottle some wines exclusively for sale at restaurants in general or even for a particular restaurant.  One possible advantage for producers of such wines it is impossible for customers to know what the restaurant’s mark-up is, by comparison to the retail price, for the simple reason that there is no retail price.

In any case, understanding once again the that sommeliers are interested in offering relatively rare wines, there needs to be a balance between expanding the corners of the envelope and the envelope itself.  Some customers will want to try the latest “orange” or want to explore “natural” wine.  Others might just like a reasonably priced white Burgundy.  If sommeliers believe that Pouilly-Fuissé is too commonplace and boring for a list (and let me say here and now, the ones from Auvigue and Bret Brothers are by no means commonplace or boring), why not have Viré-Clessé, a reasonably obscure, but neighboring, appellation, as opposed to ditching the entire category?

Of course, there’s the usual complaint about pricing.  Sure, I wish every wine on every list were 50% less expensive, but restaurants are businesses that need to make a profit.  It’s a business decision what to charge for an individual appetizer, entrée or bottle of wine.  My reaction to wine prices at restaurants that I consider too high is the same for any other purchase.  Patronize someone else.  Vote with your feet.  There are plenty of excellent restaurants serving well-crafted dishes accompanied by reasonably priced wines. 

Even on the priciest of lists, well-priced wines can be found if the sommelier has done his or her job.  Take the Topping Rose House on Long Island, a very “Hamptons” retreat, for example.  It has a well-chosen list to accompany its superb food, but, not surprisingly, given its location and setting in Bridgehampton, the meal is pricey.  On the list they have the usual suspects for the locals who might be spending $100,000+ a month for their vacation rental: 2005 Domaine Leflaive Bâtard Montrachet for $1,150, or the 2005 Michel Niellon Chevalier Montrachet for $1,050.  But they also have, buried under the “Other Whites” category, an equally rare and distinctive white Rioja, the 1996 Viña Tondonia Reserva, for $93. 

To accompany the Wagyu Delmonico Steak ($85), you could choose the 1998 Château Cheval Blanc for $1,680, but hidden in the “Other Reds” category was a stunning 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon “Les Picases” (also Cabernet Franc-based) for $70.  The lesson is that it pays to spend a few extra minutes perusing the entire list, which frequently can be done online in advance so you don’t feel rushed, instead of relying on the usual Napa/Bordeaux/Burgundy categories.

The best advice I can give is this:  Listen to the sommelier’s recommendations if you sense that he or she is sensible--and most are.  They know the wines on their list better than you do, no matter how experienced you are.  I remember a dinner, a couple of years ago, at Caves Madeleine, a small, animated bistro in Beaune--the kind of place where the menu is written in hard-to-read French cursive on a chalk board, though it makes little difference because everything is good.  The wine list was short but tempting and I watched as diners sent glasses of wine to friends at other tables.  My friend and I--both fairly knowledgeable about Burgundy--narrowed our choice to a 2004 or a 2005 red Burgundy from different producers, neither of whom either of us knew well (I no longer remember the exact wines).  We asked the owner, who doubled as the sommelier, for advice.  He suggested the 2004.  We discussed it between ourselves, but ultimately opted for the 2005 since it was spectacular vintage and we were leery of the unevenness of the 2004 reds.

The wine was excellent, though a bit closed and clearly would have benefited from more time in the bottle.  At the end of the meal, the owner sent over an unmarked glass of red wine for us to try.  It was delicious, showing lovely maturity and elegance.  When asked what it was, he replied without a trace of condescension or ‘I told you so’, “The wine you opted against.”  Listen to the sommelier.

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August 26, 2015

E-mail me your thoughts about sommeliers at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein